Whales in the Arctic and Antarctica

Antarctica Arctic

Whales in the Arctic

There are 17 species of whale in the Arctic, three of which are present all year round: belugas, bowheads, and narwhals. Others migrate long distances of up to 6,000 miles from tropical waters in summer to look for food and to give birth in the cooler Arctic.

Whales are subdivided into two types according to how they eat: baleen whales, which strain tiny particles of food such as plankton through grill-like plates in their mouths, and toothed whales, which are prey on fish, squid, starfish, and crabs. Baleen whales have two blowholes.

Beluga WhaleA Beluga whale. Source: Canva

Beluga whales can be seen throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, along the coast in bays and inlets, and are present in both salt and freshwater. They do not have a dorsal fin, which makes it easier for them to swim under ice. They are extremely sociable and vocal creatures and are known as the canary of the sea because of the constant humming, chirruping, whistling and chattering sounds they make. They also have a soft and flexible “melon” on their forehead which makes their faces very expressive.

NarwhalNarwhal. Source: Canva

Another fascinating species of whale from the Arctic and a close relative of the beluga is the narwhal, a toothed whale with a very enlarged, straight, and spiraled left canine tooth that looks like a unicorn’s horn. Occasionally narwhals with two tusks are spotted. Only about 15% of females have this tusk. It protrudes through the whale’s lip and continues to grow throughout its life, and can reach up to ten feet long. The tusk structure is an inversion of a normal tooth in that the hard material is on the inside and the nerve endings are on the outside. It is thus a sensory organ and not used for fighting or spearing fish, although this film by the World Wildlife Fund shot in 2017 shows narwhals using their tusks to hit and stun fish before eating them. Narwhals are migratory and seek out shallow waters free of ice in summer. They usually swim around in groups of five to twenty individuals, but many groups congregate in summer, when up to a thousand of them can be found at a time.

 Bowhead WhaleBowhead whales. Source: Canva

Bowhead whales are the only whales that live up to 75 degrees north in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions where the water ices over seasonally. Their blubber is correspondingly 1.6 feet thick for insulation, and their triangular skull is reinforced to help them smash through ice. A century of commercial whaling until the early 1900s reduced the population to just 3,000 individuals, but there are now about 12,000 Western Arctic bowheads and a few hundred in the Sea of Okhotsk in the western Pacific and elsewhere. Bowheads are baleen whales, feeding mostly on krill and plankton, and can be found in Baffin Bay and in waters off eastern Greenland, and Spitsbergen. Bowhead whales live at least a hundred years, as evidenced by stone harpoon tips found on them, although recent research suggests they may even live for over 200 years.


Whales in the Antarctic

Many species of whales that can be found in the Arctic can also be found in the Antarctic, sometimes even traveling the length of the planet from one pole to the other. 

Blue WhaleBlue whale. Source: Canva

Blue whales are the biggest mammals on Earth and there are various subspecies in both the northern and southern hemisphere. They famously only eat krill. Antarctic blue whales are unimaginably huge, up to 110 feet long and weighing more than 330,000 pounds – larger than other blue whale subspecies. Blue whales can be spotted in many parts of the world, mostly in the southern hemisphere – but also as far north as Baffin Bay and Spitsbergen, where they rise monumentally out of the waters.

They go further into pack ice than other rorquals, such as humpbacks and sei whales, and have been spotted as far south as can be navigated, in the Ross Sea in Antarctica. There are only about six or seven thousand left altogether in the Antarctic, so you need the help of a savvy captain to be able to spot any.

OrcasOrca. Source: Canva

Orcas, commonly referred to as "whales", also known as killer whales, are actually the largest members of the dolphin family. Despite their imposing size and appearance, they are genetically more closely related to dolphins than to whales. Also known as “the wolves of the sea”, they hunt in packs, corralling prey before attacking or isolating it on an ice floe. Like other species of dolphin, orcas are extremely sociable and live in groups known as pods with complex social hierarchies headed by a female.


They use particular calls to communicate with other members of the pod, forming a dialect which is passed on from one generation to the next. They live in many places in the world and are particularly common off the north coast of Norway and in the Southern Ocean.

Humpback whaleHumpback whale. Source: Canva

Humpback whales are great to spot in many parts of the world, as they love to breach, leaping impressively upwards out of the water and making a big splash near boats. They are rorquals, a group of streamlined baleen whales up to 55 feet long and weighing about 45 tons which have a pleated underside and are especially present near the shores of the Antarctic Peninsula. They have unusually long pectoral fins, and their heads and faces are very knobbly with large dark hair follicles called tubercles. Humpbacks feed in polar waters, migrating up to 10,000 miles to tropical waters to breed and give birth.

Sperm whaleSperm whale. Source: Canva

The sperm whale, present in all the world’s oceans, is the biggest toothed whale, at 52-66 feet long. They are gray, sometimes with a white underbelly. Unusually, their blowhole is located on the left of the crown of its outsize, bulbous head, and they have a narrow lower jaw. The head is a third of the sperm whale’s total length and contains a waxy substance called spermaceti, which helps them to focus sound as they echolocate, for example on food items: mostly squid and white fish. 

Spermaceti was once a lucrative product used for lamp oil and candles, so whaling reduced populations to critical levels and they are still recovering since a hunting moratorium was imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1987. Sperm whales can dive up to 10,000 feet for an hour at a time without having to come up for air, although they usually hunt at a depth of 2,000 feet. Female sperm whales form stable social groups with other females, while the males generally leave when they are about twenty years old, forming “bachelor” groups. As the males grow larger, they begin to migrate towards the poles and the biggest males can often be seen alone.

Southern Right whaleSouthern Right whale. Source: Canva

The Southern Right whale, a baleen whale, suffered even more from whaling, coming close to extinction. They were given their name because they were the “right” whale to hunt, as they are conveniently friendly towards humans, tend to stay close to the coast, are slow and have thick blubber so that they float even when killed. Second only to the blue whale and finback in weight (up to 100 tons), they nevertheless love breaching and put on spectacular displays.

 Sei (pronounced ‘say') whales have an unusually streamlined shape and are the third largest of the baleen whales, up to about 50 feet long and weighing 30 tonnes. They can swim up to 16 mph, which is fast for a baleen whale, and can sometimes be spotted feeding very far south in the waters of Antarctica.

The smallest and most common whale is the minke, which loves to come up alongside Zodiacs.

minke whale

Minke whale. Source: Canva

For the chance to get close to whales in the wild, join an expedition ship to the Arctic or Antarctic. Even the journey there will be full of surprises.

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